On this eve of the Winter Solstice, as I gaze at my newly erected Christmas tree, I consider the origins of some of the traditions that surround this time of the year. For instance, the little elf-like Santa peeking from among the branches of the balsam is tied to the legend of Santa Claus and to the tradition of elves.
Many of our Christmas customs come from Europe, especially Scandinavia and Germany, although Italy also has a strong influence. Most traditions pre-date Christianity. Santa Claus harkens back to the Nordic belief in Odin, the bearded father of the gods, who had a sled pulled by his eight-legged horse, Sleipner, and who rode through the night during the time of the mid-winter festival bringing gifts of food to the needy. Odin was also called Old Man Winter. Dressed in a hooded fur coat and riding a giant white horse, he would visit homes during the festivities bearing gifts and good cheer. Yule, which meant feast, was the name of the winter solstice festival. It is easy to see why our modern Christmastime involves feasting and presents.
Children would put hay, candy and carrots in their footwear drying by the fireplace as treats to tempt Sleipner to stop so Odin would leave gifts. This practice evolved into hanging stockings on the mantle to be filled with gifts. Sleipner’s freakish eight legs changed over time into eight reindeer pulling a sleigh.
German and Italian folklore tells of good witches who rode brooms through the night during the mid-winter festival, stopping at each home to leave gifts for children. The good witches represent the notion that women symbolize birth, the gift of life. Thor and Saturn were also associated with the mid-winter time. Thor, who rode a wagon pulled by two goats, aided the maiden sun goddess to escape from darkness. At the solstice, people dressed as goats and went from house to house singing and acting out simple plays in exchange for food and drink. The activity evolved into caroling. In Scandinavia, a Yule goat is still part of Christmas.
The gradual loss of sunlight that occurs in the northern hemisphere led to many rites aimed at appeasing the gods and bringing back the sun. The time was associated with death and rebirth. Saturn, Roman god of the sun, was celebrated with Saturnalia during the shortened days.
Everywhere, people observed the vegetation die in the fall, and the Earth hibernate through the long, cold “death” of winter to be reborn with the greening of spring. The idea that capricious gods could interfere with the process led to the need to appease and entreat, as did a requirement to support the gods associated with the sun and life. With the coming of winter, excess livestock was slaughtered to save on fodder and provide meals. The surplus of fresh meat encouraged feasting. Some of this livestock sacrifice was dedicated to the gods to please them in an effort to ward off bad luck, evil, sickness and the dark. Blood was a potent symbol of the sacrifice.
The red of blood paired with green provides our traditional Christmas season colors. Green is strongly identified with life and its presence in the stark winter landscape was significant. Evergreen trees, ivy and holly all symbolized the hope of lingering life holding on through the cold and dark, and new growth in the spring. When people believed in the presence of spirits in plants, evergreen spirits were thought to be strong positive influences and wards against evil. These plants were used to decorate, especially over windows and doors where negative entities could enter. By bringing evergreens inside, people believed they brought good luck into the home. During the mid-winter festival time, Norse people would decorate evergreen trees with food, clothes and tiny replicas of the gods to entice the tree spirits to remain during the dark, cold winter or encourage their return in the spring. These beliefs carry on through Christmas trees and evergreen garlands.
Cutting an entire large tree and bringing it into the house to burn during the winter solstice festival also was an exercise meant to carry luck to the home. The Yule log was lit from the remains of the previous year’s log. It burned over the entire festival season that extended from the shortest day of the year until January 12th. The unburned remains were carefully kept for next winter.
The notion that the sun died and was reborn during the shortest days of the year inspired many practices. Rebirth was associated with women, just as the Norse and other cultures thought of the sun as a goddess. Each year she was carried away to the dark lands and devoured by the wolf who lived there. Yet, before she died she gave birth to a daughter, the new sun. The period from the solstice to Jan 12 was a tenuous time for the new-born sun. Her growth was supported with sacrifices and feasting. By the middle of January, as the days become noticeably longer, it was safe to assume that the new sun would live, the earth would warm again and green would return. To help inspire the young sun, wheels were built of sticks and evergreen boughs, lit on fire and rolled downhill. The burning circle represented the orb of the sun and also the circle of life. This was the inspiration for our modern wreaths.
Just as the winter solstice is associated with rebirth, it also has strong connotations of death. The people of old believed the long, dark winter nights were the time when souls of the ancestors were able to return. They joined with other spirits on Earth and roamed the night, sometimes causing mischief or bringing bad luck or death, especially to those who had acted badly during the year. The ancestral spirits were associated with elves. The elf symbolized the soul. During mid-winter an abundance of elves could be expected. Offerings were left for the elves to make them happy so they would behave and not cause trouble. November 1st was once called the Elf Sacrifice, a time to provide valuable gifts to appease the ancestors as they began their time among the living. The Elf Sacrifice marked the beginning of the countdown to Yule. From these ancient beliefs comes the idea that Santa and the elves are watching children to see if they have been naughty or nice. Good children are rewarded and naughty ones are punished.
So many layers of tradition over millenia have led to our modern Christmas customs. The ancient practice of giving gifts has evolved to the modern horror of commercialism. Before the turkey is even on the Thanksgiving table, merchants now begin their frenzied appeal to buy, buy, buy! The annual gift glut beneath the tree may be the end product of thousands of years of winter solstice celebrations, but it does not have to mark Christmas unless we let it be so.